I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for allowing me the time to raise this very important matter on behalf of the families in Carlow and Kilkenny who have been disaffected by the current school transport system. A clear commitment was given in the programme for Government for the school transport system to be reviewed in advance of budget 2017. A press release was issued by the Department of Education and Skills on 29 July 2016 which stated the review process was underway and that the result of the review would be considered the context of budget 2017. The statement is still available on the Department website. However, it is now the end of November and we are still awaiting the results of the review.
The Government has not honoured its commitment to carry out this review. A cross-party group tasked with examining the many issues within the school transport scheme did not meet until late September, which was too late given that schools had reopened. There was no realistic chance afforded to Opposition Deputies to effect meaningful change in advance of the budget as we held preliminary meetings a couple of weeks in advance.
These meetings should have taken place in the early summer so that some work could be have been done before the Dáil recess. I was not surprised in the least to hear no mention of additional funding for the school transport scheme in budget 2017. It was the clearest indication yet that the Government has no real interest in fixing the problems in the scheme, and it seems that it wants to continue a system that causes stress and anxiety for tens of thousands of families every September.
I submitted a three-page letter to the Minister's office in advance of budget 2017, containing a number of recommendations in respect of areas which must be addressed in advance of the next academic year. More credence must be given to parents in respect of safety concerns. I can cite one such example in south Kilkenny. There is a pick-up and drop-off point at Butler's Cross for children attending Thomastown post-primary school. Serious safety concerns were raised in respect of this location by a delegation comprising gardaí, local authority, school authorities, public representatives and parents.
One parent even produced an e-mail from the Road Safety Authority which recommended that the practice needed to be brought to the attention of the bus company or that the school involved needed to contact the bus company. I raised safety concerns surrounding this location, which has a t-junction, a bad bend, a humpback bridge and cars travelling at 80 km/h, with the local school transport office and the head of school transport at Bus Éireann. I was told that because the local inspector was happy that the location was safe, Bus Éireann remained satisfied that the current pick-up point was suitable for purpose. That is one such example - I have several others.
How can one inspector's opinion overrule a delegation comprising gardaí, the local authority, the school authorities, public representatives and parents? This is just one example of a practice which the current school transport legislation and terms and conditions facilitate. We must act urgently in advance of next year.
Over a month ago the Minister of State, Deputy John Halligan, stood in the Chamber and stated the result of the review would be published within two weeks. How long more we have to wait? I held a meeting with the Minister of State and we were supposed to have follow-up meetings which never happened. We were too late because the system was up and running in September. We should have met in April or May, prior to the new school term. The entire system needs to be examined. I know of cases where families have been told that older siblings must attend one school and younger ones must attend others because the bus rules state they must attend the nearest school.
As the Government knows, in rural Ireland we are all very parochial and in 1965 when schools were amalgamated a guarantee was given that transport agreements would be honoured. Inspectors are telling some families that their children must attend schools in neighbouring parishes, which is not on. We all have sporting, religious and other ties to our parishes. That must be recognised and facilitated.